Last year was a tough one for everyone. That really goes without saying. In North American footballing terms, it was a year from hell for the three Canadian MLS teams.
Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal played out their round robin Canadian series in August and September. That let each team play six matches on Canadian soil. Their first since their home openers over the first two weeks of the season and their last for the year.
The rest of the season was all played on the road. First at the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando and then with Vancouver calling Portland, Oregon home, Toronto doing the same with East Hartford, Connecticut, and Montreal basing themselves out of Harrison, New Jersey.
It all took its toll on the players, management, and support staff at all three clubs, both physically and mentally, and with another similar season looming, it also cost CF Montreal their head coach, with Thierry Henry resigning and choosing to stay in London with his family.
The Whitecaps home away from home in Portland did allow them to charter back to Vancouver every couple of weeks to spend a couple of days with loved ones before jetting back down to the US. It was far from ideal, but it was certainly the best they could have done at short notice and with all the restrictions in place both sides of the border.
Any hopes that the 2021 season was going to be different were really little more than that. With the US-Canadian land border still closed and strict quarantine rules in place for those arriving into Canada, it was clear pretty early on that at least the first part of the new MLS season was going to see the Whitecaps decamp down to the States.
At least now they had some experience of it all and some time to put better plans in place for the new season. which is all great in theory but the impracticalities of there being no set end date to it all certainly muddies the waters.
“We’ve been working on that literally since the last game of last season,” Whitecaps CEO and Sporting Director Axel Schuster told AFTN. “We have to find an alternative solution south of the border again to play our games. The schedule is still not announced but we’ve worked hard and fought to find a solution that gives us the option to play as many games at BC Place later in the season, but of course there are so many factors playing into that.”
So what do you do? Do you plan to be away for one month, three, six, the whole season? Vaccine rollouts certainly seem to be moving at different paces both sides of the border. You feel it’s probably best to plan to be away for the entire season and anything less than that will be an absolute bonus.
That of course is a lot to ask of anyone to be away from their loved ones for that long and it’s for that reason that the Whitecaps have been drawing up plans that involve not simply living out of a suitcase in a hotel room, but to rent accommodation that would allow players and staff to bring their families with them this time around.
“We deal with every single player and staff member that has to go with us, with his problems, with his individual situation,” Schuster told us. “We would like to offer our staff and players to bring their families. The club would do the service for that. We would provide housing. We are not planning to go into a hotel.”
It’s a great commitment from the club and creates a real feeling of family within the organisation. But it’s not that straightforward. Nothing is these days.
There’s the issue of spouse’s work situations, visa issues, and a lot more. For players whose families don’t relocate down to the US with them, they can’t simply fly back to see them this time around due to the stricter quarantine rules for arrivals. It’s all just more administrative hurdles for the Whitecaps to navigate.
“The border though is closed for non-essential travel,” Schuster cautioned. “Now we are dealing with US immigration, so even if they consider those families to be essential, we have to deal with families that need visas. Because we have Colombians that have their families here, and even in non-Covid scenarios, they cannot go to the US without a visa.
“So do we get a visa process done now for these families? Do we get a visa approved in time? The Biden administration just cancelled the priority program for professional sports athletes. So there are so many things that change every day, every week. The whole organization is working 24/7 and we think about every possible solution and scenario and we have to strike out so many.
“But we remain optimistic that we find a good set-up. That we find something that is the least complicated for our players and for their lives. But, again, we are not alone, it’s the same situation for Montreal and Toronto, and it’s a clear disadvantage… It’s another tough year ahead of us.”
That set-up appears to be in Salt Lake City, Utah. Nothing is official yet, but plans are certainly advanced to call the Beehive state the Whitecaps new temporary home.
Oregon was still a possibility, but the changing situation in the state and the reopening of larger parts of it have meant the Whitecaps have had to look elsewhere.
“Portland is a place we considered again,” Schuster confirmed. “But last year the University was closed and we had exclusive access to the stadium. We would not have that this time. We had a hotel that was exclusively for us, and we built it like our own house. But the hotel will open up and there will be other guests, so it’s a total different world as you don’t want to mix too much with other guests because of Covid and the restrictions for us.
“So the set-up in Portland would have to be totally different and we were looking there. Now, we are not looking for a hotel. We are looking for houses, for condos, apartments. One bedroom, two bedroom, three bedroom, whatever. A place a family needs, as we want to give them some more of a private life and some more of a normal life.
Utah may seem to be a strange choice at first glance, but the more you look at it the more sense it makes. There is likely to be a greater choice of available and affordable accommodation, the potential altitude advantage they could get, but first and foremost, the Whitecaps can have exclusive use of the new training centre built for NWSL side Utah Royals, who are relocating back to Kansas City.
“[Accommodation] might be one good reason for Salt Lake, but the main reason we are very high on Salt Lake is that they built a whole new environment for the [women’s] professional soccer team and they went away just after they finished it,” Schuster continued. “So we would have a facility that is comparable to the facility we have here at UBC. We would have our home with offices, with gyms, with locker rooms, with massage rooms. With all you need.
“So we would have that sort of home, because if we are looking not to stay in a hotel, you don’t have the environment of a hotel. If you live in condos, where do you meet? So you need some form of home. You need somewhere where you meet as a team, where you have your meal, where you prepare for training, and all of that, and for that reason Utah offers a very, very good options for us and it looks really, really good there.”
For the players, and staff, having your family with you will certainly make these difficult times a little bit more easier and will hopefully lead to more settled, more productive results on the pitch. These are times which DP striker Lucas Cavallini is certainly hoping will be coming to an end at some point this year, but in the meantime the new arrangements are the best he, his Uruguayan wife, and his family could really hope for.
“I speak with my family all the time about this,” Cavallini admitted on a media conference call on Thursday. “It’s going to be the last stretch for us, the last sacrifice we have to make. Hopefully everything is better by the end of summer. It’s only another three months.
“It’s obviously tough for them, for sure. But they’re supportive and they’re happy with this move. Anything just to be together. It’s better than travelling to somewhere else like we did in Portland and then coming back for two days like twice in a blue moon. At least we’re always together. It’s a good thing this time. We can see each other more. If everything goes well, I want my family with me and they want to be there as well.”
[You can hear more from Axel Schuster in Episode 430 of the AFTN Soccer Show, where he talks about the season ahead and all of the logistical nightmares that come with it]